(By Jamie Henneman and Brandon Hansen/Chewelah Independent)
Proposal opposed, supported by cattlemen groups; would address Animal Disease Traceability…
The Washington State Department of Agriculture recently published a proposal that would mandate the use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags in female cows and bulls over 18 months of age, a proposal that is both opposed and supported in the state.
In the first step of the rules process, WSDA published a notice in the state register on Dec. 20 that would require any individual who owns a cow throughout the state to use the radio frequency tags. The regulation would also apply to bison. By proposing the regulation through rules, the agency does not need to gain legislative approval but must hold a series of public hearings.
The notice said the tags are needed to continue to build the state’s Animal Disease Traceability (ADT) system, as well as prepare for eventual RFID requirements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
WSDA currently has several programs which provide information for ADT, including green tags and electronic cattle transaction reporting for the dairy industry, health certificates, testing and vaccination records and livestock inspection (brand certificates), the proposal said. In addition, database systems have been created to ensure all programs capturing ADT information are housed in the same database (animal tracks).
USDA has set expectations for WSDA to show continued progress on implementing an ADT program to include increasing the use of official RFID. To continue progressing ADT in the state of Washington, capturing individual identification is imperative in tracing livestock and protecting our livestock industry, the proposal said. Capturing official identification remains a challenge, the proposal said, as imprinted tag numbers can prove difficult to read and record accurately due to human error. Official electronic identification devices have proven to be a reliable, efficient and cost-effective way to capture official identification for ADT, the proposal said. In practical terms, this probably would mean that each time a cow is moved to a new location their electronic device would have to be scanned and the data transmitted to the State to be recorded. The idea being if there is a disease outbreak the animals, their current or previous locations can be quickly traced.
“Updating our rules to incorporate RFID devices is an important step in strengthening our state’s animal disease traceability system,” Washington State Veterinarian Dr. Brian Joseph said. “The livestock industry could be devastated by a disease outbreak if WSDA and the USDA were unable to contain it quickly, something that an effective animal disease traceability program can help us accomplish.”
Local cattle producer Lorren Hagen of Hagen Cattle and Hay can remember when mad cow disease was detected in Washington state in 2003 and caused an industry slowdown for two years. In reality, he said, it ended up being cattle from Canada and no cattle from Washington were involved. He said these types of events can be very damaging to the state cattle economy.
This specific mad cow case closed the sale of Washington beef to some foreign markets. China, for example, only began importing beef from the US again in 2017. The is important considering the United States is currently China’s largest supplier of beef and China accounts for 70 percent of their total consumption. The country’s beef imports increased from $275 million in 2012 to $2.5 billion last year. The proposal also favors an RFID system over the traditional system of branding cattle to provide identification.
“While hot iron brand is a useful tool, relying on brand for individual ADT is not feasible as a brand does not provide individual animal identification,” the proposal noted. “Currently the brand program is facing significant budgetary challenges which the agency is currently addressing through interim service reduction measures. The department remains committed to maintaining a strong brand program.”
However, many cattlemen are opposed to the proposed regulation, citing there are numerous problems with RFID tags that average $2 each.
“We are concerned about this proposal for a number of reasons, but primarily because this kind of system will put family ranchers out of business in Washington State,” said Cattle Producers of Washington President Scott Nielsen. “This unproven technology is not needed and will burden ranchers with its costs and inefficiencies.”
In its preproposal statement of inquiry, the state said that it’s the WSDA’s intent to provide free RFID tags as funding is available from the United States Department of Agriculture cooperative agreements. Currently five percent of beef cows and 80 percent of dairy cows are fitted with radio tags, the WSDA said.
Nielsen noted that Washington State already has both a brand program and an Animal Disease Traceability (ADT) system in place that cattle producers pay for via inspection fees and a 23 cents-a-head assessment for ADT. The ADT program, which aimed to improve disease traceability by making more transit paperwork electronic, is less than four years old and has not yet been fully implemented, Nielsen said.
“The state should not start mandating additional technologies when the current system is not proven. Beef producers have been faithfully using the brand system and paying the ADT fee while other cattle owners have failed to participate in the system,” said Nielsen. “What needs to be addressed is the segment of cattle owners, primarily dairy owners, who are refusing to comply with the law.”
Producers Hagen Cattle and Hay are like many in Stevens County that would have to grapple with the effects of the requirements. Washington Cattlemen’s Association member Lorren Hagen said while there is benefit to the disease traceability, there are a whole host of questions.
“While the state has said they will pay for the tags, the question is how long will they pay it?” Hagen said. “The other question is with them taking in all that data, who has access to that data and what do they do with it?”
Hagen said that cattle producers wouldn’t want questionable groups and organizations to have access to the number of head they have and their location. This information would be either publicly available or received through a public information request.
The Washington Cattlemen’s Association supports the move to radio tags for the disease-surveillance programs, Executive Vice President Sarah Ryan told the Capital Press. The organization, however has not taken a stand on requiring electronic tags on all cows over 18 months.
The transition to digital readers and getting the right software will be tough for some cattle producers, Hagen said. The current branding system has its issues as well, Hagen added, saying that producers have to pay fees for brand inspection when they move a cow. He estimates that only about a third of the cattle in the state is branded.
The Cattle Producers of Washington official press release on the matter stated that the radio tags could be impeded by metal corral, weather and a lack of Wi-Fi/Internet connections as cited by a USDA study. Fraud is also possible as an RFID tag can be removed, allowing changes of ownership without an inspection. Software and scanners could be unreliable as well.
As cattlemen wait for the WDSA to set dates and locations for public meetings on the issue, the agency affirmed the need for the regulation.
For more information, visit https://agr.wa.gov/news